Greens' bill rips veil off lobbying

KATE CHAPMAN
Last updated 05:00 10/04/2012

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Lobbyists who try to sway politicians behind closed doors could face tougher scrutiny under proposed legislation.

Activities such as dinners with the prime minister and watching rugby games from corporate boxes would need to be disclosed through registers proposed under the Green Party bill.

Searchable registers overseas mean it is easier to find out which New Zealand businesses have been bending the ears of politicians in Washington DC, Ottawa and Canberra, than at home.

Green Party MP Holly Walker's Lobbying Disclosure Bill, modelled on the Canadian version, aims to bring transparency to MPs dealings with lobbyists.

Canada has a lobbying commissioner, an online registry of lobbyists, a lobbying code of conduct, and regular statistics are collated and reviews done.

Similar legislation exists in Australia and the United States and the British Government is considering bringing in a public disclosure regime.

Barrie Saunders, of Wellington government relations consultancy Saunders Unsworth, said he did not think there was a problem with the lobbying environment in New Zealand, but he was relaxed about the proposed changes.

Canada's lobbying commissioner, Karen Shepherd, said lobbying, done transparently, was a normal part of government decision-making.

Her role focused on free, open access to government and public knowledge of who was lobbying.

In Canada, only paid lobbyists were required to be registered, she told an international conference on lobbying in Chile in January.

"In our legislation, the onus to register and report lobbying activities rests with the lobbyist, not the public-office holder."

Breaches are investigated by the commissioner and can be referred to police.

Ms Walker said her bill included a wide definition of lobbying. Labour was likely to support the bill through its first reading, though it was understood to want the definition narrowed.

Lobbying was sometimes benign, and could be helpful, but it was concerning when attempts were made to "sway" legislation.

She pointed to the proposed SkyCity deal, which would see the company build a convention centre in Auckland in return for additional gambling machines or licence extensions.

"We happen to know in this case that the prime minister was meeting with lobbyists from SkyCity ... But this [bill] would add to that transparency; we could see how many times did the prime minister sit down with them? Did they take him out for dinner? What were they discussing?"

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